DAVAO CITY (MindaNews / 26 January) – At least 43 members of the Special Action Force (SAF) of the Philippine National Police were killed Sunday in clashes with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) in what Local Governments Secretary Mar Roxas described as a “legitimate law enforcement action” against two high-value targets – the Malaysian national Zulkifli bin Hir alias Marwan of the Jemaah Islamiyah and Filipino Basit Usman of the Abu Sayyaf.
According to Roxas, the SAF operatives were going to serve warrants of arrest against the targets who were reportedly in the area of the BIFF but because of the maneuverings, apparently got inside an area of the MILF where a misencounter occurred.
MindaNews obtained a list of 41 slain SAF members, of whom seven were commissioned officers (four Senior Inspectors and three Police Inspectors) and 34 were non-commissioned officers (8 Police Officer 1, 16 Police Officer 2, nine Police Officer 3 and one Senior Police Officer).
“Misencounter” is the term used in the clash between government and the MILF because both parties already consider each other as “partners,” having signed a comprehensive peace agreement on March 27 last year, after 17 years of negotiations. The signing of the agreement paved the way for the creation of a new autonomous political entity called the Bangsamoro that would replace the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) by June 30, 2016.
Both parties are presently awaiting Congressional action on the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL). Once ratified, the ARMM will be deemed abolished and the Bangsamoro Transition Authority (BTA) takes over until the first set of officials of the Bangsamoro government shall have been elected by May 9, 2016.
Fr. Eliseo “Jun” Mercado, former president of the Notre Dame University in Cotabato City and a member of the Independent Fact-Finding Body of the GPH-MILF peace process until the Estrada administration’s “all-out war” against the MILF in 2000, said Sunday’s tragedy “could have been avoided” if the PNP-SAF had coordinated with the military and police in the area as well as the peace process mechanisms – the GPH-MILF Coordinating Committees on the Cessation of Hostilities (CCCH) and the Ad Hoc Joint Action Group (AHJAG).
These two mechanisms are products of agreements between the panels as early as 2001 and 2002.
MindaNews tried contacting Police Chief Superintendent Getulio Napeñas, SAF Commander, but as of 7 p.m. Monday, Napeñas had yet to reply to MindaNews.
MILF chair Al Haj Murad Ebrahim, in a statement sent to MindaNews, said they were “doing our best to effectively quell the unnecessary violence that just erupted. The Joint CCCH and the IMT (International Monitoring Team) are now on the ground to work for the restoration of normalcy in the area.”
He said the violence “should have been avoided if the usual mechanism of coordination was followed before the conduct of operation by the government troops.”
“Anyway we hope this will be settled as soon as possible.”
Government peace panel chair Miriam Coronel-Ferrer in a statement posted by the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process (OPAPP) said that based on reports of the ceasefire mechanisms, “all efforts are being exerted to retrieve the casualties and provide safe passage to other SAF personnel who remain in the affected areas.”
She said members of the IMT, the ceasefire committees of the GPH and MILF, the Army’s 6th ID and the regional police were “working closely together in these efforts.”
Ferrer said the Joint CCCH “immediately effected a ceasefire” but regrets that “due to the involvement of other armed groups, some intermittent fighting continued.” Ferrer was referring to the BIFF which broke away from the MILF in March 2010.
“This incident and other recent acts of violence by other armed groups manifest the diverse security challenges that confound the peace process. But our resolve to see through the process of legislating the Bangsamoro Basic Law and implementing the different Normalization programs, including the security components, is only further strengthened. With better cooperation we will be able to prevent these kinds of incidents,” she said.
Lawyer Naguib Sinarimbo, former Executive Secretary of the ARMM from December 2009 to December 2011, a member of the legal team of the MILF peace panel from November 2012 and now a member of the Joint Normalization Committee, expressed grief over the loss of lives that could have been avoided “if only we followed the protocols and mechanism established by the parties.”
“I hope people are discerning enough to segregate the issues of the lapses in the coordination, the need to fast-track the BBL, and the need to stick to the agreement of the parties in terms of sequence and timelines in the Normalization. If we lose sight of the big picture then there is the danger of scuttling the peace process entirely,” he said.
Fr. Roberto Layson, head of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate’s Inter-religious Dialogue said “the ceasefire agreement which includes preventing criminalities should be observed religiously by the military, police and BIAF (Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces of the MILF). They need close coordination to avoid a repeat of this untoward incident.”
Fr. Mercado, however, considers the tragedy “a money-making operation that went afoul.”
Mercado told MindaNews that what appears to have been a clandestine operation of the SAF was “a product of Bounty Culture, expecting the two million dollars (88 million pesos) bounty put up by the United States on the heads of Basit Usman and Marwan”
“Two million dollars each! This is money making operation that went afoul!” Mercado said.
$6 million bounty
Zulkifli bin Hir alias Marwan who has been reported killed several times in the past, actually carries a $5million (220 million pesos) bounty for information leading to his arrest and Usman a million dollars (44 million pesos).
In Maguindanao, police and Army officials declined on Sunday night to comment on what happened but confirmed that the SAF operatives did not coordinate with them.
Maguindanao Governor Esmael “Toto” Mangudadatu told MindaNews in a telephone interview Monday that there is no need to coordinate with local leaders or the provincial police chief for operations such as what the SAF did in Mamasapano but the SAF should have coordinated with the the peace process mechanisms of the GPH and MILF.
But Mangudadatu added that local leaders, especially the mayor, should have informed authorities about the presence of high-value targets in his town.
ARMM Governor Mujiv Hataman declined to comment Sunday night, choosing to comment only on Monday night, as he called on government and the MILF and all stakeholders not to let Sunday’s tragedy derail the peace process.
“As stakeholders, we must guard the gains in the ongoing peace process,” he said. (Carolyn O. Arguillas / MindaNews)